One-half of the Kobe-LeBron dream matchup is set.
DENVER — One-half of the Kobe-LeBron dream matchup is set. Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA finals for the second straight year and record 30th time overall. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will need to win two more wins to join them. Otherwise, it will be Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic on the league's biggest stage.
Not as sexy for Madison Ave., but certainly intriguing.
Bryant and the Lakers dispatched Carmelo Anthony and the pesky Denver Nuggets with a 119-92 victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Friday night.
"We saved our best game for last here, or maybe we caught our opponent a little bit off stride," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who gets a shot at his record 10th title.
Bryant had 35 points and 10 assists and got plenty of scoring help from Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as the Lakers shot 57.3 percent from the field to avoid having to play a Game 7 back at the Staples Center.
They will finally get some much-needed rest after playing every other day for a grueling two weeks.
These Lakers, who are seeking their 15th title, are a more grizzled group — but also more bruised and battered — than the one that fell to Boston in the finals last year.
"Now we're in a place where we didn't get the job accomplished last year," Bryant said. "Hopefully we will this time."
Instead of cruising through the West this time, the Lakers survived an arduous seven-game semifinal series against Houston and another test against Denver.
"It's been a physical march all the way back to the finals, every series has been tough," Bryant said.
The Magic lead 3-2 and can clinch the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night at home in Game 6 and prevent that Kobe-LeBron matchup that has basketball fans and corporate sponsors atwitter.
The finals begin Thursday, at Los Angeles if Orlando wins, and at Cleveland if the Cavaliers prevail.
Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points and J.R. Smith added 24, but Denver trailed for all but a few seconds and never mounted a serious charge after halftime, although they kept hitting 3-pointers, finishing 8 of 19 from beyond the arc.
This was the Nuggets' eighth consecutive loss in a playoff elimination game.
Odom and Gasol both scored 20 points and Ariza had 17, and the Lakers made all 24 of their free throws and were 9 of 16 on 3s.
"We are really tough to beat because we're using all our weapons, not focusing on Kobe or myself," said Gasol, who had 12 rebounds and six assists. "We have a really good team and need to use everybody. That is how we are going to win it."
The Lakers might very well have been swept by the energetic Nuggets if veterans Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin hadn't botched inbounds passes in the final seconds of Games 1 and 3, respectively.
Bryant didn't wait for the fourth quarter Friday night to give the Nuggets, who had posted eight postseason blowouts, a taste of their own medicine.
He scored 11 points in a decisive 21-7 run that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead, took the buzz out of the Pepsi Center and the air out of the Nuggets.
"We had the effort and the execution to match," Bryant said. "It took us a while to really get a feel for the team, just how to take advantage of the defense. We saw something how they were playing us and we executed extremely well."
Bryant started his run with two free throws, then hit a jumper over Smith. After Ariza's 3-pointer, Bryant made baskets over Anthony from the left and right corners on the next two possessions, then capped the run with a dagger — a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left following Gasol's offensive rebound.
The Nuggets trimmed their deficit to 79-67 but the Lakers replied with a 9-0 run to restore their stranglehold. Bryant scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer that made it 101-82.
"He had a great five minutes at the end of the game that no one in basketball could have covered him," Nuggets coach George Karl lamented.
Karl likes the Lakers in the finals no matter if it's Kobe-LeBron or Kobe-Superman.
"I saw little cracks in the Lakers and somehow we've cemented those cracks back up, and I think they're the best team right now in the NBA," he said.
The Nuggets thought they had the Lakers right where they wanted them after stealing Game 2 in Los Angeles, but they quickly gave the homecourt edge back on Martin's botched inbounds in Game 3 that cost them their first loss at the Pepsi Center since March 9.
After winning 16 straight games at home, the Nuggets lost two of three there in their first trip to the conference finals in 24 years.
Chauncey Billups, whose acquisition from Detroit for Allen Iverson in early November, transformed the Nuggets from afterthoughts to contenders, said, "I'll never forget this year. But this is not as far as I want to go."
Jackson thinks these Nuggets, with their top five scorers returning next season, have arrived as an elite team.
"They thrashed a lot of opponents in the Western Conference playoffs," Jackson said. "And their physicality and athleticism and their scoring ability is remarkable."
Bryant concurred, suggesting the Nuggets helped the Lakers play to their potential.
"Denver is a great team, very skilled at all positions," he said. "Strong inside. Strong on the perimeter. Huge problem for us. And because of that, we had to elevate our level as a unit. And if we didn't do that, we'd be going home early."
Nene broke his left forearm in the game and will wear a splint for 3-4 weeks. ... Anthony turned 25 Friday: "It was a terrible birthday present," he said. "But I can get used to playing on my birthday."